Dec 042012

We are well past Veteran’s Day, a day I always find myself conflicted, and could almost let this one pass. Almost, but not quite. Because I strongly believe that if we weren’t so military, that if making war on people didn’t seem to be our country’s primary business, we might have money to spend on getting ready for the many problems that face us instead of focussing on the the fake problems of “terrorism” and “drugs” and “Iran,” motives for our current wars since we lost the bugaboo of the “red menace.” Heck, there might be money for things like state of the art ferries.

“Supporting the troops” is a phrase that has no real meaning unless it means “shut up criticizing our wars.” Real support of the troops means making certain that contracts made with them for benefits are upheld. Instead, “Support the troops” leads to celebrations where school kids are subjected to glorifying military service.  I realize this is a very touchy area. Veterans such as myself are justifiably proud that we were in the military. But we are proud for various reasons; not necessarily proud of the wars we were involved in or all the actions that took place.

The Petraeus scandal, among other things, demonstrates that Generals are pretty normal human beings. The modern general is  much like any corporate CEO who fights or cheats his or her way up the ladder. Petraeus has been a master of PR for a good part of his career (most recent events excepted). All In:The Education of General David Petraeus is a pretty good example of how he co-opted the media. Now, having violated America’s standards he will finally be subjected to a no holds barred analysis of his career.

I just finished reading a book called, The Man Who Saved the Union, a biography of Ulysses S. Grant who ended up being the 1860s equivalent of a four star and then a two term president who presided over a very tough period of history called “Reconstruciton.”

Grant’s PR was pretty bad until he started winning battles and then won the Civil War. In the later part of the nineteenth century he was the most famous man in America and actually world famous. He hated to give a speech and was well-known for being self-effacing. This tradition continued through WWII.

Consider this photo.

Dwight Eisenhower, who actually won a war like Grant, wears a single row of ribbons. Petraeus, who sandbagged a President into authorizing a “surge,” displays some 30 decorations on his blouse.

What civilians don’t recognize is that Petraeus’s awards are the equivalent of merit badges signifying that he has, “been there and done that.” He has one medal for valor, a Bronze Star with a “V” device. The rest are service ribbons or unit citations.

I don’t know when it started, perhaps in the Vietnam era, but there has been a lot of inflation where medals are concerned. You can’t even be certain about the hero ribbons. I would like to think that most are earned. For example, in the Air Force in Vietnam, if you flew 15 combat missions you received an Air Medal. You got this if you were a prop plane pilot flying low level night bombing missions or a B-52 pilot dropping bombs from 25,000′. I can’t speak for every combat unit in every service but in the last combat wing I served in in the Air Force you had to write your own citation to get most medals, e.g. a Distinguished Flying Cross. A DFC was important to a pilot on his career resume.

As far as I’m concerned anyone who gets in a combat aircraft and flies into enemy territory to drop a bomb ought to get a medal. But, it doesn’t work that way. Cuz that’s the job. To get a DFC or a Silver Star or and Air Force Cross one is supposed to do something exceptional. Many did and got medals they deserved.

But then, there’s Road Cut McAlister, a Major, a pilot, a career officer who wanted that next promotion to Lt. Colonel and who hadn’t done anything really exceptional when the President called a bombing halt in 1966. Major McAlister was concerned. He had no DFC. On his most recent mission before the halt he had dropped a bomb on a road. As we said then, he had “interdicted” it. It was repaired by the next day by small men with picks and shovels. But, McAlister, to the disgust of his fellow pilots, wrote himself up for a Distinguished Flying Cross  As it turned out, after bombing resumed, he did a lot of stuff that was braver and more heroic than a simple interdiction. But his career panic earned him a nickname that stuck for the rest of his tour.

Glorifying military service is tricky business. Soldiers, sailors and airmen deserve our thanks for serving. I appreciate being invited to the school for their function and to my grandkids schools for their Veteran’s Day functions. But I’ve decided I won’t go. Just send me the check every month and give me that medical benefit you promised. That’s more than enough.

A war culture with overhyped threats distracts us from every real problem that we face and will be required to deal with.


  8 Responses to “Road Cut McAlister”

  1. Thanks, Randy. Excellent observations.

    Bloviating about the military is as bad as every other uber-hyped slice of our PR-driven political and money smoke & mirror games. It covers many sins & allows hideous policies to continue, including the dishonoring of those who serve in the military by failing to support them afterwards. Another sin is cruelly and destructively requiring active duty personnel to serve so frequently (far more than is reasonable or healthy, ergo all the military suicides).

    And, as many of those who have served honorably & willingly over the years … for what? To puff up the ego of people like Petraeus (great photo comparison between honest Ike & salad bar Petraeus)? To keep arms manufacturers ‘happy’? To win ‘hearts and minds” in Vietnam, Iraq, Afganistan etc? Booth Buckley, at LI’s Memorial Day Service, said it well (you can find the link on Facebook Lummi Island Friends).

    For solid and definitely non-partisan information about how we got where we are today, I highly recommend Rachel Maddow’s (rather nerdy) book. It’s in our library, in both paper & CD form. Bill and I listened to it with shock & awe.

    It’s also worth reading Dick Cavett’s essay (NYTimes, 2008) on Petraeus & Crocker’s posturing (also on CD from the library, with Cavett reading; direct link to article:
    Here’s one quote from Cavett’s essay that resonated with your Petraeus-Eisenhower photo: “I can’t look at Petraeus — his uniform ornamented like a Christmas tree with honors, medals and ribbons — without thinking of the great Mort Sahl at the peak of his brilliance. He talked about meeting General Westmoreland in the Vietnam days. Mort, in a virtuoso display of his uncanny detailed knowledge — and memory — of such things, recited the lengthy list (“Distinguished Service Medal, Croix de Guerre with Chevron, Bronze Star, Pacific Campaign” and on and on), naming each of the half-acre of decorations, medals, ornaments, campaign ribbons and other fripperies festooning the general’s sternum in gaudy display. Finishing the detailed list, Mort observed, “Very impressive!” Adding, “If you’re twelve.”

    I’d be a lot happier if we and our school kids spent just as much time and energy (not more, just equal) lauding and honoring, in word and deed, those who give their lives to strengthening our society and world via teaching, peacemakers, art, honest communications, protecting Mother Earth’s viability, food production and science. We’d have a better country.

  2. Title of Maddow’s book: Drift:The Unmooring of American Military Power. (Starts pretty much with the Johnson years, trudges through every administration since then right up through Obama.)

  3. Thanks so much for voicing this other perspective. Nothing leaves me feeling more left out of America than Veterans Day. I followed in my father and step-fathers Quaker foot prints and refused to register for the draft back in ’66. I was the second resister who didn’t get the typical maximum five year sentence in the Camden NJ Court, to my relief. I joined the ranks of felons and did “two years service in the national interest”. I worked one year at a mental hospital and a second at a school for retarded children. Being a felon steered me away from thinking about careers in the mainstream so I’m self employed and much enjoy the freedom. President Carter apparently pardoned folks like myself and I thank him very much.

    In BC particularly, the draft resisters who came north earned a special place in the hearts of many Canadians, I’m a bit envious. Here to the south, that there was ever war resistance has all apparently been forgotten in a fog of…what… constant warfare? It seemed to me that NPR did two solid weeks this year of warm and fuzzy Veterans Day reporting. It took about fifteen years for the stories to come out but most Vietnam Vets I know got roughed up real bad and we just keep on and on doing war. Except we are going bankrupt doing it. Again, thanks from a different kind of vet.

  4. Thanks Brian. It is way too late but I am putting you in for a Distinguished Service Medal (with a pottery cluster).

  5. Wynne, or any book by Andrew Bacevich, retired army colonel.

  6. Thank you so much, Randy. I, too, have a real discomfort with glorifying war to kids. To focus on the glory without also focusing proportionally on the incredible destruction and dehumanizing brutality of it is a gross distortion of reality.

  7. I am in the middle of reading “The Man Who Saved the Union” and it’s a wonderful book. I never thought I would get interested in reading about war, but this one is a page turner. As for “Veterans Day”, I remember the time when it was called Armistice Day and was supposed to commemorate the end of war, not, as it is now, to glorify war.

    A wonderful post, Randy. Be careful, you’ll become the darling of the island’s liberals

  8. Anne,

    Sadly, “liberals”, e.g. Obama and his apologists now seem as gung ho as the Neocons of the Bush era. Acts Bush was criticized for are now vigorously defended.

    Re: The Man Who Saved the Union. “The book proves that US Grant got a bad rap as President. The evidence presented by HW Brands demonstrates that Grant was a thoughtful, intelligent Chief Executive during an extremely difficult time in our history—the era of Reconstruction, where elements in the South wanted to continue without change. Grant walked a tightrope in his decision making, reluctantly sending Federal troops to S. Carolina and later Louisianna to suppress the activities of the KKK and other recalcitrants. He was involved in a difficult economic period full of high level film flammers. After his presidency ended Grant himself was victimized by a scammer, his own son’s partner, who left him deeply in debt and struggling to get by, a concept unknown to Presidents of our era. After his financial debacle Grant was diagnosed with throat cancer. In order to earn some money he finally agreed to write about the Civil War, first in a series of articles and, finally, in an autobiographical account of his generalship for publisher Samuel Clemons. He finished it just before his death and the booth acclaimed by reviewers and became a best seller earning his widow $400,000, a huge amount in the late nineteenth century.

    For twenty years following the Civil War, Grant was the most famous and highly regarded person in America. He was, in addition
    famous throughout the world, feted by kings and emperors on a circumnavigation he took following his second term as President.

    There is much less controversy surrounding Grant’s generalship. Grant was the general that Lincoln sought, a man who would fight. He was cool, collected and clear in his orders. He didn’t get rattled and expected always to win by moving forward. The great mystery of his character (and one I wished the author had tackled) is how Grant who had a middling fifteen year career in the US Army before resigning to avoid a court marshal over his drinking, and who failed as a farmer before the war could have stepped up to the plate to become General of the Army and President of the United States. Grant must have required the circumstance of war to prove his mettle.

    This is a long book covering cradle to grave, well-researched and convincing but short on analysis. Having read Grant’s autobiography, I came away with a new understanding and appreciation of his role in American history.” From my post on

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